- Dubai World Expo
- 300visitors per hour
If you were given the world’s largest projection canvas, a mandate for interactivity, and the challenge to tell a story about the future… what would you do? We had the privilege of helping Artists in Motion (AIM) bring their answer to this question to life in Become a Guardian of Al Wasl, a mammoth interactive projection at the Dubai World Expo. Displayed through over 250 projectors onto the stunning Al Wasl Plaza, the experience uses facial recognition and real-time rendering to bring families together on an unforgettable journey they’ll remember for a lifetime.
AIM’s brief was clear: use interactivity to give families a magical memory of their time at the Dubai World Expo. The challenge for us was to figure out how to make meaningful interactivity work at a huge scale – on the largest projection canvas in the world.
The 65m high domed trellis of the Al Wasl Plaza was a site to behold. The translucent dome acted as a 360 projection surface, displaying content both inside and outside to create a uniquely immersive canvas – on which this project would be the hero interactive.
For the majority of the World Expo, projections onto the Al Wasl Plaza featured pre-rendered, atmospheric content. In contrast, the experience that AIM was looking to create would be interactive and rendered in real-time. A dynamic, vibrant story that changes and evolves with each visitor who interacts with it. This project would be experienced by a global audience in the thousands, and we all wanted to make it count.
AIM’s creative direction for Become a Guardian of Al Wasl was founded on the idea of connecting the main themes of the Dubai World Expo: Opportunity, Sustainability and Mobility. First and foremost the project needed to honour this Expo’s explicit goal of bringing people together. Alongside this, there was an opportunity to acknowledge the long history of the event as a global gathering dedicated to finding solutions to the challenges of our times.
In the end, we worked under AIM’s creative direction to craft a story about unity. Our audience would come together with other Expo visitors on a quest to protect our planet.
Stepping up to an interaction pod, visitors would scan their face and personalise their own digital avatar. This avatar would then soar up into the dome above to interact with an environment as vibrant and ever-changing as our own.
Simplicity was the key to the interaction and content design. Dynamically rendered onto the huge projection dome, these avatars would give visitors a larger-than-life role in the story unfolding around them. But, more importantly, the avatars would interact with one another, connecting visitors on their journey to explore the future. This was a story about you, me, us… and our role in protecting our planet.
A project of this scale is always going to require immense collaboration and integration. And, given the World Expo’s ethos of bringing together global partners together, this project would be no exception. From the moment AIM brought us onto the project, we worked closely to refine the creative direction and animation. We also collaborated with local fabricators and IT teams in constructing the custom interactive pods, and ensuring technical support and online maintenance.
Beyond this, we prioritised deep collaboration with the companies responsible for the hardware infrastructure of the Plaza, the overall integration of the building, and the Expo’s own management community, data security and IT infrastructure teams. In this case, due to the scale of the work, we even went as far as to send a small team over to Dubai for six months to collaborate with all of these organisations on the ground.
When we first started working on ‘Become a Guardian of Al Wasl’, we investigated the possibility of using facial recognition as part of the avatar customisation. We spent some time experimenting with using facial scans to create a stylised avatar – like in our Vivo Me experience. But eventually, in consultation with AIM and the World Expo team, we settled on using real photos and mapping these directly onto the avatar suits.
This choice ended up being one of the most powerful in the final experience. Mapping images of real faces onto the avatars meant that visitors would not see a caricature of themselves in the projection, but their real selves, blown up to larger-than-life size. This simplicity of this fact made the experience all the more powerful. It meant we were able to directly include visitors in the story in a tangible, exciting way.
User interface design doesn’t always sound like the most exciting part of an experience like Become a Guardian of Al Wasl. But in an experience based on interactivity, good UI design is a must. Drawing inspiration from the Dubai World Expo logo and the domed trellis design of the Al Wasl Plaza, the team at AIM created an experience that was simple and intuitive. Each step of the user journey was presented with as little excess information as possible, gently guiding visitors through the experience.
Another important factor for the UI design was our diverse, global audience. Any and all of our interface design needed to rely, as much as possible, on visuals rather than text. We needed to be able to communicate the general flow of the experience intuitively without words so that visitors of all ages and nationalities would be able to interact.
When it came to text, we encountered a further complication. Because the interface had to work with both English and Arabic text, screens could not flow from left to right. Instead they had to move upwards, which required some R&D across AIM’s team and our own. In the end, this limitation provided an unexpected opportunity, mirroring the movement of your character throughout the experience.
Like many of our projects, ‘Become a Guardian of Al Wasl’ required a custom interaction interface. In this case, the interface spanned two devices – an interactive pod to visually preview the avatar, and a tablet through which to customise it. Within each pod was a large, portrait-mode screen, a Windows machine running Unreal Engine, and a DMX controller system to operate the built-in LED lights. In fact, the pods were so hardware intensive that we ended up installing built-in air conditioning and ventilation to keep them running reliably throughout the Expo.
When it comes to content, it can be easy to think more is better. But ultimately, the magic of the experience wasn’t in the projection content itself, but in its real-time nature. This was a truly immersive, all-encompassing space. Taking AIM’s lead, we didn’t want to overwhelm our visitors with complicated content.
There’s something about seeing your own face moving around on a huge dome above you that is magical in itself. It’s almost refreshing to be able to focus on that one strangely intimate fact, with bits and pieces of the story fitting into place around you, without having to think too much about what exactly is going on.
Actually projecting the content onto the dome itself was an exercise of integration. The overarching projection system for the Al Wasl Plaza was based on a Disguise network linking together over 250 projectors across the dome’s circumference. While we did not manage this network directly, we worked closely with the Disguise Vendor to ensure that the Unreal Engine content we were developing would perform flawlessly on the dome. This process involved many months of collaborative development to add features and remove bugs as we worked with the very bleeding edge of their software.
While our work often requires members of our team to travel for deployment, this project was unique in the scale of this commitment. Thanks to our close working relationship with AIM, we were able to send a deployment team over to Dubai for six months. Then, for four of those months in the lead up to launch, our developers here in Australia worked on ‘Expo time’ so that the whole team could collaborate effectively.
No matter what simulated testing we did in the Sydney studio, nothing could compare to testing with the actual dome. Standing underneath the dome is a very different experience in real life than it is on a flat render or even in a virtual environment. You can’t replicate the sheer scale of the dome, the ambient light and sound, and of course the way people would actually interact with the experience.
As our first physical deployment in the Middle East, the team encountered all kinds of issues unique to both the location and the context of the World Expo. From extreme +40° heat, dust from sandstorms, flooding of server rooms, power outages, network issues and even precipitation inside the dome due to the extreme humidity. Deployment certainly kept the team on their toes.
It can be easy to think that digital experiences – even those with a physical aspect – can be only that; digital. But most often, the human element is surprisingly important. In the case of ‘Become a Guardian of Al Wasl’, the human hosts provided by AIM did more than just functionally facilitate the experience. They also extended the experience by helping tell the story, providing interesting background information, and generally being a friendly, warm presence throughout the entire journey. They made the experience that more special for each and every visitor.
In addition to the physical experience we also worked with AIM to develope a digital souvenir to extend the life of the experience. The souvenir consisted of a short video of their customised avatar launching into the fantastic environment of the dome. This choice helped extend the experience beyond the single physical moment, creating memories for visitors to look back on and share for years to come.
Given the Expo would be running for six months, we also had the chance to work with AIM to develop temporary, specialised content for key events. Luckily, working in real-time means such flexibility is built in by design. All of the hard work is done upfront in developing the system. From there, it’s as simple as developing content assets and placing them in the scene.
After over two years of collaborative development with AIM, Become a Guardian of Al Wasl launched in October of 2021. The only interactive content to be displayed on the huge canvas of the Al Wasl Plaza, the experience was a simple yet effective way to invite visitors to take an active role in the world of the Dubai World Expo. While only open for a small portion of the day, the experience sees over 300 people an hour step into a magical story that unfolds around them. A story that belongs to them, along with all the other visitors of the Expo. A story they’ll never forget.